When the Yankees entered the playoffs, their strategy seemed pretty clear: they would deploy their historic bullpen early and often. While each of their starters, Luis Severino, J.A. Happ, Masahiro Tanaka, and CC Sabathia, actually turned in quite good seasons, the Yankees’ best chance to advance past the 108-win Red Sox was to leverage their elite relievers at every turn.
Manager Aaron Boone even demonstrated a pretty firm grasp of how to use his deep relief corps earlier in the playoffs. He pulled Happ just two innings into Game One of the ALDS, and removed Tanaka after five innings in Game Two despite showing no signs of trouble. Yet when the time came for urgency in Games Three and Four, Boone appeared asleep at the wheel.
What makes the lack of action more frustrating is how the Yankees’ bullpen plan actually worked when it was put in motion. Brian Cashman clearly doubled down on giving Boone and his staff the game’s best bullpen when he added David Roberston at last year’s deadline and Zach Britton at this year’s. The bullpen was supposed to be one of the fiercest weapons in the game in the postseason, and during the Yankees’ brief stint in October, the bullpen was absolutely as good as advertised.
Let’s take a look at the split between the Yankees starters and the relievers across their five postseason games:
Yankees Starters vs. Relievers
Obviously, though Boone deserves criticism for his bullpen management in this series, one of the biggest reasons the Yankees lost was the failure of their starters. At first glance, the bullpen appears to have struggled too, posting a 4.67 ERA in the playoffs. However, that split is heavily skewed by the use of the dregs of the bullpen, like Lance Lynn, Stephen Tarpley, and literally Austin Romine, in the Game Three blowout.
If we hone in on the Yankees’ big six, Dellin Betances, Aroldis Chapman, David Robertson, Zach Britton, Chad Green, and Jonathan Holder, the bullpen’s numbers are as staggering as we’d have expected:
Yankees Top Relievers
When the lights were brightest and the Yankees needed outs, their top relievers were absolute dynamite. When Severino ran into trouble in the Wild Card Game, Betances put out a two-on-none-out fire and turned in two crucial innings. The bullpen gave up no runs in six innings in the Game One loss, and one run in six innings in the Game Four loss. Both those games looked dire early, but the Yankees nearly came back to win each because the bullpen immediately stymied the Red Sox once called upon.
At some point, critiquing Boone’s inaction in the ALDS will feel like beating a dead horse. Managerial decisions probably receive too much attention in the playoffs, as at the end of the day, the players are the ones who decided the games. Boone’s decisions were highly questionable, but there’s nothing questionable about giving up 16 runs in a game, or scoring four runs in two games at home. Getting outplayed by Boston was the main culprit in the Yankees’ demise.
At the same time, players are the ones who decide the games, and the Yankees’ best options, their elite relievers, actually did their jobs. If they had been asked to do even more, in more opportune situations, the series may have turned out differently. The Yankees super bullpen was every bit as good as it needed it to be, as it was expected to be. Due to a brief offensive slump, bad starting pitching, and a slow hook from the manager, it wasn’t enough.